Are mobile games a form of art?

By Stephanie Newman , written on February 5, 2014

From The News Desk

In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired 14 video games for its collection. Deemed exemplars of human-computer interaction, "Pac-Man," "Tetris," and "TheSims" all made their way to the walls of the museum’s Applied Design wing. Some critics were severe in their disapproval (“MoMA has mistaken video games for art,” claimed The New Republic), while others treated MoMA’s news like a foregone conclusion: “Video games are factually and actually art,” declared PBS’s Idea Channel. “The case is now closed.”

But the conversation hasn’t ended. Instead, it’s shifting in the same direction as the gaming industry: towards mobile. With over 100 million Americans playing mobile games, there’s no doubt that the activity is leaving its cultural imprint. The looming question is how highly this pastime will come to be regarded. Will mobile games ever be considered a form of art?

Setting the bar

Choosing criteria for what constitutes art is as subjective as it sounds, but the write-ups accompanying MoMA’s video game collection are telling. MoMA’s portrayal of "Portal" compares the game’s “optical vertigo” to the works of MC Escher, while the museum’s explanation of Myst echoes the experience of reading a novel: “Players follow a trail, solve a mystery, and try to discover what has happened to other characters in the game.” One description quotes the creators of "flOw," who compare their game to music: “Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

It’s striking how the language describing these games borrows from other forms of art. Beyond narrative power and visual achievement, MoMA’s games, like most compelling art, ask players to contend with the human experience. In "Canabalt," players must run for their lives by jumping from one building to the next – the virtual equivalent of a life-or-death adrenaline rush. In "Passage," characters literally slow down to grieve when in-game “loved ones” die. "SimCity" steps beyond just emotion to invoke critical thinking; according to MoMA, the game compels players to learn the complex strategy and politics behind building cities.

Perhaps most importantly, several of these games empower players to become creators – or “artists” – themselves. "Eve Online" epitomizes this phenomenon. Gamers craft their own worlds filled with people and narrative events. The publisher even hired anthropologists and economists to deepen the game’s experience. As the publisher of "Eve Online" CCP Games has proclaimed, “Nothing compares to a player that is enabled to affect the universe.”

Shifting to mobile

Aesthetic beauty, emotional stakes, critical thinking, empowerment — it’s a tall order for mobile games to live up to. "Minecraft" allows players to build worlds, but it doesn’t involve the high-level thinking about anthropology that won "Eve Online" its acclaim. And while games like "Magic Piano" give players the chance to make music on their phones, there isn’t a mobile game quite like the MoMA’s "Vib-Ribbon," which is coded to unfold its gameplay based on a player’s limitless choice of CD-Roms.

Still, several of MoMA’s acquisitions have their nascent mobile counterparts. "Infinity Blade" for iOS offers magnificent seascapes and fortresses, and the narrative in its trailer about a foreign world and heroic protagonist pulls heartstrings. More fans are starting to pay attention to the beauty of mobile games, as evidence by a list that circulated online and named "World of Goo," "Night Sky," and "Limbo," among others, the most aesthetically pleasing mobile games out there. User reviews of these games also shed light on the impact of their beauty: “The twilight ambience and moody music turn this game into a work of art,” writes one "Night Sky" player. “The artistic style is absolutely drop dead gorgeous.”

The fact that mobile games encourage different consumption patterns from video games also deserves mention. Most video gamers undergo hours-long gaming sessions, whereas 83 percent of mobile gamers play while waiting for an appointment, and 72 percent while commuting. It’s harder to immerse yourself in a narrative, feel strong emotions, and craft complex worlds when you’re on the subway or standing in line for Starbucks. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with quick entertainment. Whether mobile games earn the artistic respect of their predecessors is in the hands of both players and developers.

Perception is...power?

The discussion of mobile games as art might seem provincial, but the debate is relevant to developers — namely as a means to combat the perception of games as a waste of time. The gaming world’s detractors are often smart and powerful people with far-reaching voice, so pushing back on their views is clearly in developers’ best interest. Case in point is Sam Anderson, the book reviewer who penned the ubiquitous New York Times Magazine article trashing “stupid games.” In it, he confesses:

I decided to renounce video games forever. They had, I recognized, a scary power over me — an opium kind of power — and I was hoping to cultivate other, more impressive ways of spending my time. I had aspirations of capital “c” culture, and so I started pouring my attention into books, a quieter and more socially respected form of escapism.
It’s a dichotomy all too common: People enjoy playing games but renounce the activity in favor of more enriching pursuits. This will change if mobile games assert themselves as deserving works of art. When developers release titles that persuade people like Anderson to reconsider the scope of “capital ‘c’ culture,” mobile games might win itself a new fan base.

[Image Credit: Wikimedia]